What is Psychogeography?

In research conducted by the Urban Realities Laboratory, we are driven by one main idea: that the form, appearance, and organization of geographic spaces can exert an impact on how we feel and think, what we do and what we want. In a neuro-scientific context, this can mean studying everything from the manner in which a long, monotonous street façade might make our shoulders stoop and our faces betray boredom or anger, to the refreshing impact of a short visit to an urban parkette that can change our mood, our patterns of brain activity, and even the levels of stress hormones in our bodies.

Psychogeography has a history that long pre-dates the availability of the shiny tools that we use in our lab to probe eye movements, skin responses and brain waves in urban pedestrians. Guy Debord, a French philosopher and activist and the founder of the Psychogeographic Movement, defined psychogeography in terms not much different from those that any behavioural scientist could relate to when he said “psychogeography sets for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”. But Debord went far beyond this prescient understanding of the power of geographic settings to influence our minds and our movements when he suggested that by paying close attention to the influences of our surroundings, we could begin to unshackle ourselves from what he called the “insubordination of the habitual.” Debord used strong and provocative language to suggest that we humans could be strongly affected by our surroundings, perhaps even sometimes enslaved by them, so that our collective behaviour could be bent to the will of those with something to gain from us. Anyone who has ever been lost in a giant shopping mall can probably resonate to this idea.

Even a less dour and defensive attitude towards the influence of the places of our lives, though, would suggest that it’s very important for any concerned citizen of urban life to understand how what’s around us affects what we do. One of Debord’s prescriptions for undoing or at least understanding the pernicious influences of space was to embark on what he called a dérive. To conduct a dérive, one adopts some kind of a playful attitude towards space during a walk. For example, take a Sunday afternoon stroll through city streets, but rather than simply succumbing to the habitual by being led towards what attracts the senses, use a rule to guide your turns. One rule might be to flip a coin at every intersection to decide whether to turn left or right. Less cumbersome on city streets might be to simply make two left turns and then a right turn at three consecutive intersections and to continue that pattern for as long as you decide to walk. By surrendering to the rule, you are negating all of the usual impulses that might guide your navigation decisions, conscious or otherwise. Debord believed that by doing this it might be possible to overcome habitual impulses and so become more attuned with how the warp and woof of city streets affect us.

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 11.50.18 AMAt the Urban Realities Laboratory, rather than using such a playful approach, we ask participants to surrender their habits by allowing us to lead them on a carefully curated walk through the city. We encourage participants to tune into their inner states during the walk and to notice how their surroundings affect them, but we help them along by offering a set of sophisticated tools that we can use to put numbers to some of these effects. By measuring the reactions of bodies and minds to the urban surround, we can collect data that can help us to understand how urban design affects human behaviour but, perhaps more importantly, such walks can help participants themselves tune into the psychogeographic backdrop of their own lives.

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